Tag: Washington Post

Dueling Earmark Op-Eds

With a key vote on earmarks slated for next Tuesday in the Senate Republican Conference, Republican leaders are having it out on whether their party should eschew earmarking or continue the practice. The debate centers on the division of power between Congress and the executive branch.

On NRO’s “The Corner” blog, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) calls earmarks a “phony issue.” Doing away with earmarks doesn’t reduce spending. It simply transfers authority for spending decisions to the executive:

Earmarks have been part of the congressional process since the founding of our country. As James Madison, the father of the Constitution viewed it, appropriating funds is the job of the legislature. Writing in the Federalist, he noted that Congress holds the power of the purse for the very reason that it is closer to the people. The words of Madison and Article 1 Section 9 of the Constitution say that authorization and appropriations are exclusively the responsibility of the legislative branch. Congress should not cede this authority to the executive branch.

And he criticizes the anti-earmark movement as “pseudo” fiscal responsibility:

While anti-earmarkers bloviate about the billions spent through earmarks, many of them supported the trillions of dollars in extra spending for bailouts, stimulus, and foreign aid. Talk about specks versus planks! Over the course of the last several years, the overall number and dollar amount of earmarks has steadily decreased. During that same time, overall spending has ballooned by over $1.3 trillion. In reality, ballyhooing about earmarks has been used as a ruse by some to seem more fiscally responsible than they really are.

Taking the other side, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) writes in the Washington Post that earmarks are part and parcel of Congress’s abdication:

Those who view earmarking as an expression of the “congressional prerogative” sell Congress short of its preeminent role as the first branch of government. As the defenders of earmarking are fond of saying, earmarks represent less than 2 percent of all federal spending. Precisely! By focusing on a measly 2 percent of spending, we have given up effective oversight on the remaining 98 percent.

This lopsided exchange can be examined empirically. As the number of earmarks has risen significantly over the past two decades, the amount of oversight exercised by the House Appropriations Committee — as measured by the number of hearings held, witnesses called, etc. — has declined substantially. It is as if Congress has called a truce with the executive branch: Don’t hassle us about our 2 percent, and we’ll offer only token interference with your 98 percent.

Senator Inhofe misuses Federalist #58. The “power of the purse” refers to the fact that revenue measures must originate in the popularly elected House, strengthening its hand against the Senate, whose membership was to be selected by state legislatures. But he is right to castigate the earmark opponents who have thrown buckets of taxpayer money into the wind when Washington, D.C., has lately spun itself into a whirl.

Inhofe’s static view of earmarking produces the weaker of the two arguments, though. Rep. Flake is right to recognize earmarking’s dynamic effects. The fiscal weaklings—majorities in both parties—decline oversight and go along with spending bills they might otherwise oppose because of goodies for their home states or districts.

Earmarker comity may even cause fiscal conservatives to go wobbly. Try counting the number of amendments Senator Inhofe has offered seeking to strike earmarks in 23 years of debating spending bills on the Senate floor, and you may not need to raise a finger on either of your hands.

The right answer is to take what both of these debaters has to offer. Earmarks should go, and Congress should withdraw spending discretion from the executive branch while it reduces spending overall.

I’ll be speaking Monday at a Hill event on earmark transparency. Should be a barn burner!

End ED — From the Left!

It’s no secret that expelling the U.S. Department of Education is something that a lot of libertarians, and conservatives who haven’t lost their way, would love to do. What’s not nearly so well known is that there are also people on the left who dislike ED. Now, they don’t dislike it because it and the programs it administers clearly exist in contravention of the Constitution, or because its massive dollar-redistribution programs have done no discernable good. They dislike it because, especially since the advent of No Child Left Behind, it strong-arms schools into doing things left-wing educators often disagree with or resent, like pushing phonics over whole language, or imposing standardized testing. Many also truly believe in local control of schools, though often with power consolidated in the hands of teachers.

Case in point is a guest blog post over at the webpage of the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss. The entry is by George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Ohio and executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy. He writes:

Everybody dislikes bureaucracies, but for different reasons. The “right” complains they are unresponsive, full of “feather-bedders,” and a waste of taxpayer money. The “left” complains they are unresponsive, full of people who are too busy pushing paper to see the real work, and too intrusive into local, democratic decision-making. Maybe we should unite all this new energy for making government more responsive and efficient around the idea of eliminating a bureaucracy that was probably a bad idea in the first place.

Remember that the Department of Education was a payoff by President Jimmy Carter to teacher unions for their support. Before that, education was part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

That’s where I propose returning it. Here are several reasons why:

First, the current structure of the national Department of Education gives it inordinate control over local schools. The federal government provides only about 8% of education funding. But through through NCLB, Race to the Top, and innovation grants, they are driving about 100% of the agenda. Clearly this is a case of a tail wagging a very big dog.

Second, by separating education from health and welfare, we have separated departments that should be working very closely together. We all know, even if some folks are loath to admit it, that in order for a child to take full advantage of educational opportunities he or she needs to come to school healthy, with a full stomach, and from a safe place to live.

But the federal initiatives around education seldom take such a holistic approach; instead, competing departments engage in bureaucratic turf wars that, while fun within the Beltway, are tragic for children in our neighborhoods.

Third, whenever you create a large bureaucracy, it will find something to do, even if that something is less than helpful. After years of an “activist” DOE, we do not see student achievement improving or school innovation taking hold widely. We have lived through Reading First, What Works, and an alphabet soup of changing programs with little to show for it.

In fact, DOE has often been one of the more ideological departments, engaging in the battles such as phonics vs. whole language. Who needs it?

Who needs it, indeed!

As I have touched upon repeatedly since last week’s election, now is the time to launch a serious offensive against the U.S. Department of Education. I have largely concluded that because of the wave of generally conservative and libertarian legislators heading toward Washington, as well as the powerful tea-party spirit powering the tide. But this is a battle I have always thought could be fought with a temporary alliance of the libertarian right and educators of the progressive left who truly despise top-down, one-size-fits-all, dictates from Washington. There are big sticking points, of course — for instance, many progressives love federal money “for the poor” — but this morning, I have a little greater hope that an alliance can be forged.

Unclear on Internet Security and Surveillance

The Washington Post has a poorly thought through editorial today on the Justice Department’s “CALEA for the Cloud” initiative. That’s the formative proposal to require all Internet services to open back doors to their systems for court-ordered government surveillance.

“Some privacy advocates and technology experts have sounded alarms,” says the Post, “arguing that such changes would make programs more vulnerable to hackers.”

Those advocates—of privacy and security both—are right. Julian Sanchez recently described here how unknown hackers exploited surveillance software to eavesdrop on high government officials in Greece.

“Some argue that because the vast majority of users are law-abiding citizens, the government must accept the risk that a few criminals or terrorists may rely on the same secure networks.”

That view is also correct. The many benefits of giving the vast majority of law-abiding people secure communications outstrips the cost of allowing law-breakers also to have secure communications.

But the Post editorial goes on, sounding in certainty but exhibiting befuddlement.

The policy question is not difficult: The FBI should be able to quickly obtain court-approved information, particularly data related to a national security probe. Companies should work with the FBI to determine whether there are safe ways to provide access without inviting unwanted intrusions. In the end, there may not be a way to perfectly protect both interests — and the current state of technology may prove an impenetrable obstacle.

The policy question, which the Post piece begs, is actually very difficult. Would we be better off overall if most or all of the information that traverses the Internet were partially insecure so that the FBI could obtain court-approved information? What about protocols and communications that aren’t owned or controlled by the business sector—indeed, not controlled by anyone?

The Tahoe-LAFS secure online storage project, for example—an open-source project, not controlled by anyone—recently announced its intention not to compromise the security of the system by opening back doors.

The government could require the signatories to the statement to change the code they’re working on, but thousands of others would continue to work with versions of the code that are secure. As long as people are free to write their own code—and that will not change—there is no way to achieve selective government access that is also secure.

The current state of technology, thankfully, is an impenetrable obstacle to compromised security in the interest of government surveillance. The only conclusion here, which happily increases our security and liberty overall, is that everyone should have access to fully secure communications.

Why Government Should Not Give Nutrition Advice

There are plenty of reasons why politicians and government bureaucrats have no business telling you what you should eat.  The Constitution grants the federal government no authority to do so, for one thing.  Even if it did, it is simply wrong to force people to pay taxes so that other people can hand down nutritional advice or – God forbid – mandates.

A terrific article by Jane Black in The Washington Post illustrates why, furthermore, the government’s advice isn’t likely to be very good:

[H]istorically, the government has shied away from offering controversial advice. And with food, everything is controversial: A boost for one type of food in the guidelines can be viewed as a threat by providers of competing products. The result, critics say, is a nutritional education system so politically influenced that it is ineffective.

This year’s process appears to be no exception. In public comments, the meat lobby has opposed strict warnings on sodium that could cast a negative light on lunch meats. The milk lobby has expressed concerns about warnings to cut back on added sugars, lest chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milks fall from favor. Several members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation also weighed in against added-sugar restrictions in defense of the cranberry…

In 1977, a Senate select committee led by Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) was forced to beat a hasty retreat after it initially recommended that Americans could cut their intake of saturated fat by reducing their consumption of red meat and dairy products. Its revised guidelines suggested choosing “meat, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake.”

McGovern, whose constituents included many cattle ranchers, lost his seat in 1980. Since then, in case after case, the guidelines have refrained from suggesting that Americans eat less of just about anything.

Public health advocates say that kind of vacuum is precisely the problem: By avoiding blunt messages about what not to eat, the government has spoken in a way that baffles consumers.

“The only time they talk about food is if it’s an ‘eat more’ message,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University and a longtime critic of the food industry. “If it’s a question of eating less, then they talk about nutrients.”…

[A]s in the past, translating scientific data into clear and useful recommendations poses political pitfalls. The advisory committee’s emphasis on a “plant-based” diet, for example, has caused much consternation among the powerful egg and meat lobbies who say the term might be misunderstood as advocating a vegetarian diet.

This problem trips up all big-government schemes.  Right-wing and left-wing statists think they have a terrific idea: give the government power to do this or that, and Experts will use that power to improve mankind.  But then the people with a financial stake get involved, and the effort ends up serving them more than mankind.  See also health care, national defense, etc..

KFF/HRET Survey, Part III: Employers Can’t Shift to Workers a Cost that Workers Already Bear

In a previous post, I promised to address the negative spin that the Kaiser Family Foundation put on its annual Employer Health Benefits Survey, released this month.  I do so in an op-ed that ran today at the Daily Caller.  An excerpt:

The Kaiser Family Foundation recently issued its annual survey of employer-sponsored health benefitsdeclaring: “Family Health Premiums Rise 3 Percent to $13,770 in 2010, But Workers’ Share Jumps 14 Percent as Firms Shift Cost Burden.” That’s half-right — but the other half perpetuates a myth about employee health benefits that stands in the way of real health care reform….

[Y]ou pay the full cost of your health benefits: partly through an explicit $4,000 premium and partly because your wages are $9,770 lower than they otherwise would be.

Kaiser therefore claims the impossible when it says that firms are shifting costs to workers.  Employers cannot shift to workers a cost that workers already bear. Yet this year, as in past years, the Associated PressBloombergCNNKaiser Health NewsThe Los Angeles TimesThe New York TimesNPRThe Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post uncritically repeated the cost-shifting myth.

The bolded sentence is Cannon’s Second Rule of Economic Literacy.  (Click here for the first rule.)

I have also collected a series of excerpts from past Kaiser Family Foundation surveys showing this is a persistent issue.  Here are a few:

1998: “Workers in small firms bear a much larger share of the financial burden for health benefits than employees of larger firms.”

2005: “The average worker paid $2,713 toward premiums for family coverage in 2005 or 26% of the total health premium.”

2007: “Annual Premiums for Family Coverage Now Average $12,106, With Workers Paying $3,281”

The folks at the Kaiser Family Foundation were exceedingly gracious when I approached them to discuss this issue.

Avoiding the ‘U’ Word

I grow increasingly amused at how some people carefully avoid saying that ObamaCare is unpopular.

When Pollster.com aggregates all the various polls on ObamaCare’s popularity, it reveals that a plurality or majority of the public has consistently opposed the law since before the angry town-hall meetings of August 2009:

It’s no surprise when HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius avoids the U-word by saying stuff like, “We have a lot of reeducation to do.”  (To be clear, she’s talking about reeducating you, not herself.)

But it’s odd when a Washington Post news item describes the public as “profoundly ambivalent” toward the law. (According to Merriam-Webster, ambivalence means holding “simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings,” “continual fluctuation,” or “uncertainty as to which approach to follow.”)  Or when Kaiser Family Foundation president and CEO Drew Altman tells NPR: “The public is split, has been split, and continues to be split.”

I guess those descriptions are true (though “continual fluctuation” and “uncertainty” seem like a stretch).  But they’re not very informative.  “Ambivalent” doesn’t tell you if one side dominates.  “Split” could accurately describe anything shy of unanimity.  “Opposed” or “unpopular” or “consensus” would convey so much more information. Why convey less?

What Was That Ronald Reagan Line Again?

The Washington Post editorializes this morning on the “Google-Verizon” proposal for government regulation of the Internet:

For more than a decade, “net neutrality” — a commitment not to discriminate in the transmission of Internet content — has been a rule tacitly understood by Internet users and providers alike.

But in April, a court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission has no regulatory authority over Internet service providers. For many, this put the status quo in jeopardy. Without the threat of enforcement, might service providers start shaping the flow of traffic in ways that threaten the online meritocracy, in which new and established Web sites are equally accessible and sites rise or fall on the basis of their ability to attract viewers?

What a Washington-centric view of the world, to think that net neutrality has been maintained all this time by the fear of an FCC clubbing. Deviations from net neutrality haven’t happened because neutrality is the best, most durable engineering principle for the Internet, and because neutral is the way consumers want their Internet service.

Should it be cast in stone by regulation, locking in the pro-Google-and-Verizon status quo? No. The way the Internet works should continue to evolve, experiments with non-neutrality failing one after another … until perhaps one comes along that serves consumers better! The FCC would be nothing but a drag on innovation and a bulwark protecting Google and Verizon’s currently happy competitive circumstances.

I’ll give the Post one thing: It represents Washington, D.C. eminently well. The Internet should be regulated because it’s not regulated.

“If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”